The Asian Trade Center Sapa is a microcosm of the northern Vietnamese hill town of the same name. A couple of fires were recently cause for alarm but order has been restored and the myriad vendors, tucked among the fields and paneláky of south Prague, are back in business.
The bustling Sapa complex, which occupies the grounds of a former slaughterhouse and also houses a primary school and a Buddhist temple, is a festive place. Visitors can expect the grit and hum of the open-air market experience: cargo-bearing trucks trundling down narrow alleyways, food vendors on bikes snaking in and out of traffic, the whiff of fish. Weekends are the best time to go, when Sapa is at its liveliest, but on a quiet weekday you can wander around without sidestepping cars and people every few minutes.
The majority of the market space at Sapa is devoted to large warehouses packed with miscellaneous clutter. Drogerie loaded with knock-off fragrances, rainbows of sweaters and pleather handbags, piles of junk jewelry, jeans. You probably won't find deals here unless you're after a fifty-pack of socks. Away from the wholesale racket there are a handful of shops that specialize in paper lanterns, ornamental candles, and religious icons. There are places that carry Vietnamese magazines, newspapers, and films. And there is a bizarre store that hawks mannequin parts.
If the allure of headless torsos doesn't get you to Sapa, the food should. You can easily plan a day around eating here. Start with the coffee. The ledová káva at Sapa is a treat. Avoid the občerstvení selling instant Nescafe and powdered creamer and flag down one of the bicycle vendors for a tall glass of strong Vietnamese coffee with crushed ice and condensed milk. Or try a "bubble tea", fruit tea and milk flecked with balls of chewy tapioca. Other vendors offer fresh-squeezed orange juice and Vietnamese crepes stuffed with shrimp and button mushrooms.
At Sapa you can either eat at a "proper" restaurant with a menu or at one of its many small, informal dining rooms. On my first visit I had lunch at Thuc Don Do An, a café on Sapa´s restaurant row. Picky eaters who require steamed tofu with vegetables and white rice—which is what my lunch date ordered—will do well here. The more adventurous will skip the picture menu and ask for a tasting plate of specialties. The surprise-me approach will get you several knobs of braised pork hocks in a rich gravy, slices of moist, chili-caramelized pork loin, a spongy pocket of steamed tofu with a ground-pork center, and sides of stewed mustard greens and sticky rice. Two people can easily eat here for under 200 CZK, beers included.
On a more recent trip, accompanied by a cooking instructor and a couple of fearless meat eaters, I braved a tiny kitchen at the end of a dim pasáž, poised between a green grocer and a ping-pong table. From low stools we enjoyed near-boiling bowls of pho, a soup of chicken or beef and wide rice noodles steeped in a fragrant broth flavored with ginger, black pepper, lemon, and shallots. Our chicken pho was topped with thin slices of chicken and a few pork meatballs, along with fresh basil, cilantro, and spring onion. Dressed with a variety of the tableside condiments—pungent fish sauce, lemon juice, pickled garlic, and chili paste—the variety of flavors was bountiful. A generous bowl of pho was 80 CZK.
As you roam the streets of Sapa you'll spy the occasional table lined with glass globes, resembling fishbowls, filled with colorful ingredients. These stands are selling sinh to, a popular Vietnamese fruit drink, in which chunks of lush fruit in its own juices—lychee, mango, pineapple, watermelon—are ladled over crushed ice and sugar. Savory bean drinks with black cubes of jelly grass are also on offer. These fruit cups are a healthful, refreshing anecdote to a hot and spicy meal.
Do some grocery shopping on your way out. The food markets that border the clothing warehouses stock hard-to-find produce like ropey, pale-green long beans, custardy cherimoya, electric-pink dragon fruit, and crunchy bitter melon. Bunches of aromatic lemon grass, sweet Thai basil, and leafy Vietnamese mint are easy to come by. Choose from fresh or frozen fish, including giant bags of frozen tiger prawns. Take home firm Asian tofu from a tub of water or, if you´re really brave, the delicacy balut; a partially fertilized duck egg. Rice flour and glutinous rice flour for baking appear at most shops. On my last trip to Sapa, I picked up sesame oil, shrimp-flavored rice paper, and fiery Sriracha hot chili sauce. The array of rice paper wrappers, noodles, sauces, and imported Vietnamese snacks and drinks is endless.
Sapa has also been mentioned in the Czech press for sinister reasons: allegations that the area´s crime rate is on the rise. But by day the market is a busy and inviting place to temporarily get lost. You´ll see Czech families enjoying noodles alongside Vietnamese shop owners, packs of kids scooting bikes around cartons of produce, young couples doing grocery shopping—all the unique flavors of a city diversified.
To get to Asian Trade Center Sapa take bus 113 from metro Kačerov or bus 198 from Smíchovské Nádraží bus station to Sídliště Písnice. Sapa is open daily from 9:00-20:00.